Much of the amphitheatre [in Trier] has disappeared, its stones being recycled over the centuries. But you can explore the cellars under the arena. A while back we’d seen a television programme reconstructing the underground stage machinery for lifting cages of lions, gladiators, and other entertainment into the centre of such arenas. Amazing to be able to visualise that. A couple of weeks before in Verona I’d just prowled around the outside of the arena, saving the excitement of being inside for when we go back there for the opera, maybe next year.
Maybe the middle of a heatwave wasn’t the easiest time to revisit Verona – but it certainly made for balmy evenings at the opera. Still sleeveless at midnight.
We tried a different way of doing things – a bus tour opera package, with five of us (Stefanie, Maria, Fredi, Mani and me) boarding in St Gallen and being driven in air-conditioned (thank heavens!) comfort to Verona, our hotel, and back to the centre for the Aida that night.
The next day, a city drive, followed by a walking tour (TOO hot!) and then a horror realisation that we were to stay in the city until that evening’s performance.
Rebellion and renegotiation. Some of us at least, wanted to shower off the rivers of sweat and relax a little before our appointment with The Barber of Seville. Our driver complied – though not with the greatest grace. He was a very good driver; just not a great tour-host. Consensus: we’re better at being independent travellers. The driver might concur.
I observe the masonry-catching nets under some particularly rickety balconies and firmly suppress all thoughts of earthquakes.
Of course a week later we’re watching the devastation of the bridge collapse at Genoa, and thinking again about the cost of being Italy: a huge deficit, deferred maintenance on every part of the infrastructure, and the responsibility for so much of Europe’s cultural heritage.
Those of us who come to marvel pay a little tourist tax on our hotel bill, spend a bit in the cafes and restaurants, dicker over the price of the seats in the Arena, and… What would it take for the world to decide to distribute its wealth differently? Spend a heap on climate change mitigation, another heap on poverty, another heap on conservation and preservation, and starve the military, stop investment in militarising space… You’ll have your own list, but there’s nothing like standing in places where 2000 years of history are visibly present to make us think about our priorities for the next 1000.
Back to the Arena! It was built in CE30, when Tiberius was emperor. For those of us who like timelines, think Julius Caesar, who made his protégé and great nephew Octavius his heir; Octavius was the first Roman Emperor, renamed Augustus; Tiberius succeeded his stepfather in CE14. That meant three very successful administrators and nation-builders in a row. What might they do with Italy now? Augustus had been interested in restoration as well as building – he’d had Athens and the Agora restored. Our kind of ruler! Tiberius continued the building programme. Although he was not himself a happy chappy, he obviously knew the value of bread and circuses for keeping the citizenry amused – so up went the Arena.
It could take 30,000 spectators, in 44 tiers of seats. Now they offer only 15,000, ‘for security reasons’. Another thought firmly suppressed. In we went, through the dark stone passage between what is now the outer ring, and the inner one.
We’re sitting on metal seats placed on top of the ancient stones. Not what you’d call comfortable – but better than directly on the stone seats which is where the ‘unnumbered’ tickets go. Cushions are for sale for just a few euros. I buy one for the 2nd night.
The original outer ring of lovely pink and white sandstone almost all came down in an earthquake in 1117 (stop thinking!) just leaving the ‘ala’ (the ‘wing’) standing to catch the light of the sunset.
There’s something a little different about the wait for an outdoor opera to start. The people-watching brings so much more diversity to the eye. Summer frocks, haut couture, jeans; jandals and accident-waiting-to-happen heels…
The set calls to your imagination about what they will do to it, to create scene-changes without the benefit of wings or a fly-gallery.
And here in Verona, it’s a daily breakdown of the set from last night’s opera and installation of the one for tonight.
Then, the wonder of the acoustics. The Verona Arena is the third largest in Italy, after the Colosseum and the amphitheatre in Capua – 140 metres long, 110 metres wide – and with a perimeter around the seating of 391 metres. Yet, it’s grand opera unplugged! No amplification, no cunningly concealed microphones. The power of the human voice is all there is. And all it takes. There’s a special engagement when you need to really listen to the dynamics of the sound instead of just having it pumped into your ears.
Years back, I was astonished at the acoustic of the ancient Greek theatre at Epidaurus – but that was designed for theatre, not as ‘sports’ venue like a Roman arena. Times, tastes, and values change though, and when Emperor Honorius banned gladiator games in 404CE, the Arena ‘went black’ for centuries. In the Renaissance they used it for theatre, then in the 1850’s there were some operatic performances – and now, as in the Roman days, people come from all over.
It doesn’t take much of a leap of the imagination to re-costume the people milling around waiting for the show to start. But no animals (or humans) were harmed in the staging of this production. That said, we couldn’t help but miss the elephants and horses and chariots from Aida‘s Grand March, the way they did it in the Steinbruch at St Margrethen!
More Verona… with sad thoughts towards Genoa.